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Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Page: 13753


Mr LAMING (Bowman) (16:38): Having worked for many years in the area of looking after the social impacts of gambling, I never thought I would be standing here in the national parliament speaking against a bill that ostensibly sets out to aid those who are affected by problem gambling. The reality is that the federal government has made such an inordinate hash of this hastily prepared and ill-conceived legislation that it is almost impossible for the average Australian to look at the National Gambling Reform Bill and think that it will achieve anything and do anything other than waste a whole lot of money.

This is a highly complex issue and it deserves a whole lot more time than it has been given this month. This legislation was released on 1 November, and there was one week for a committee to take submissions and another week for it to consider them. This is a very rushed approach and it reflects a government that has lost all policy direction. There is plenty of history here with the member for Denison and the deal for Labor to become the government. The Prime Minister was going to do as much as she could to keep the vote of this one individual, and the moment this individual became irrelevant to the numbers for this government the deal was off. It was Senator Xenophon who said it just makes you wonder whether you can take the words of this Prime Minister with any level of trust at all. The reality is that, now the member for Denison's requirements are not those of the government, he is being cast aside.

What we have left is this emptied out carapace of a bill that has in it all the ugliest elements of government control and overregulation, together with the very obvious element that by remaining completely voluntary it is almost impossible to see how compelling the industry to spend money will have any impact on the problem whatsoever. We have the worst of both worlds—the completely overburdening regulation for those who operate gaming machines, and the reality that by being a voluntary system a large number of our problem gamblers will simply not choose to participate.

Let us wind back a little. We know there are about 15,000 problem gamblers in the country; we know also that gaming is a massive part of the local economy. We all come from different parts of Australia and we know the important contribution that clubs, and in smaller towns small pubs, make to local economies. Obviously everyone here wants a balance. Instead, what we have is, as I have said, hasty and ill-conceived legislation that burdens every gaming operator with these requirements to operate the software in their systems by 2016 or, for those with fewer than 20 machines, by 2020. They are expected to have these changes made to their machines at a very rapid rate, and for many of these clubs it is virtually unaffordable, so we are right to be deeply concerned. Keep in mind that the economy is not good; keep in mind that clubs that were profitable as recently as two years ago are now genuinely struggling. Keep in mind that for the average club that has enormous overheads to cover, these gaming machines are the only things keeping them afloat.

A small club cannot call in a few volunteers to help them through—they have to raise the revenue somewhere just to keep afloat and keep doing the good work they do. Every dollar they lose when they pay what I call 'the government's gambling tax' to the government in the form of a gambling regulator—'Oh no', I hear everyone sigh; yes, another regulator—is a dollar that does not go to community organisations in the local neighbourhoods of these clubs. That is the dollar that is taken away by the government.

Let me focus on three issues in the 10 minutes I have. The first is the proposal last year for a mandatory precommitment trial here in the ACT. Second, I want to look at some of the technical problems with the bill as it has been proposed. Third, because I have a regional and remote focus, I want to look at how this legislation would affect small communities around this great nation. I refer first to the ACT trial. I can remember a hastily cobbled together conference involving Jenny Macklin, Katie Gallagher and of course the head of Clubs ACT. This was the first jurisdiction to agree to a proposed trial of mandatory precommitment technology. I do not think the individual members of Clubs ACT were even told of the decision. We had one individual, who I will not name in this place—they probably have half an eye on their ALP membership and half on the running for the Senate one day—arranging a deal so that just in case the Prime Minister had to wiggle out of this one with a precommitment trial somewhere, the ACT would back her up. Suddenly the coffers of the federal government opened up and it committed to every club that any financial loss as a result of mandatory precommitment would be compensated by the Commonwealth government. How much would that be? Of course they did not know, but the Commonwealth government was being fully exposed to those costs. Those clubs included the Ainslie Football Club, the Raiders football club, Eastlake, the Woden Valley Rugby League club, the Southern Cross Club and the Burns Club—all different configurations of clubs coming together and asking 'What on earth are we doing here? We have mandatory precommitment in the ACT so that anyone who is not terribly keen on that idea drives to Queanbeyan and those who are not too keen about that just drive to the next town and gamble on the pokies there.' There were ridiculous distortions across a jurisdictional boundary, but this was not about fixing the problem—it was about a get out of jail card for the Prime Minister so she could appease the member for Denison.

Of course it all went pear shaped. The clubs were in complete distress. I recall that Ainslie Football Club had already written up a $600,000 annual loss for the previous financial year, and I have grave concerns that the loss could be three times as much this financial year. This club was in no position to have mandatory precommitment foisted upon it, but of course, together with every ACT club, that was exactly what was going to happen to it. That is assuming that the government even intended to carry out this trial at all. No, it was a stopgap measure just in case they had to. It was a political solution to the problem of staying in government. This, like so many government commitments, just evaporated away because, in the end, they were not painted into a corner and forced to do it. So you know what? Of course, this government simply did not do it, and the proposed ACT trial never happened.

Let us move on from these grubby political deals and look at the technical complexity of walking into a club with between 20 and 200 machines, giving them a time line to change over their machines and then telling them they are going to have to pay for it. Let us remember that over 91c in the dollar is returned to the gamer; there is a small amount taken by the state government and a very, very small proportion that is retained by the operator of these machines. They are, in many cases, barely viable. What this government does not realise when it comes up these grand plans for national regulation is that it is usually the smallest and most vulnerable clubs that are the most affected. In many cases, the big guys are okay, but it is the small clubs that simply cannot wear the burden of an additional requirement like this one from the federal government.

The plan sounds okay, doesn't it? We have all got a card, and you cannot go anywhere without using the card. You can sign up for the card if you want to. If you do not want to, you simply have no card. Therein lies the first big flaw. I have no problem with voluntary precommitment. But, if it is going to be mandatory for every club, casino and pub in the nation to wire up their systems, they would want to be getting a decent return on that massive, massive cost. The reality is that this is a federal government that has no money to spend, no will to give. Before you knew it—that is right—they were dreaming up yet another tax so that the operators themselves paid for all of these costs. These are free and independent operators being lumbered with another regulatory requirement. This is the Gillard government's dream of a massively regulated sector.

In the end—I have to keep going back to the precommitment scheme being utterly voluntary—there is almost nothing one can do to engage a problem gambler who does not want to be part of that precommitment. We have listened to the Gaming Technologies Association, who said that you simply could not amortise those sorts of requirements into the operations of many, many clubs in the years that were provided. But this is a government that has not listened. If you go out to the small towns where there are very low numbers of machines, the great challenge for these smaller operators is to keep getting new machines. Players get bored with old machines, and, when you are a very small operator, replacing those machines regularly with new ones comes at an extraordinary cost. So, when you lay another regulatory burden on them, they simply will not be able to turn over their machines as often, and gamers will seek out the new machines, going to larger venues with more games, more flashing lights, and more hyperlinked machines that are even more addictive. It is the small providers who lose out. Of course, that point has been completely lost in this government's rush towards legislation.

This is a government that has not listened to what people are saying about this area. It has turned gaming into a political pawn. It only played the piece and moved it forward when it looked like it might lose government. That is the great tragedy. This is yet another commitment that was made in order to get the support of an Independent member so that Labor could sit on the government side of the chamber. This is an example of where the government was given the opportunity to fix a problem, the scourge that is problem gambling; instead, we are left with horrible overregulation; ultimately, a voluntary system that everyone opts out of; and a completely unacceptable time line for the businesses who, in the end, will wear the burden of this regulation.